Iraqis grapple with post-war radioactivity
Iraq's ministry of health launched a survey Thursday to look for radiation sickness.
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"We have expressed our concern loudly ... as we heard about the looting, and our awareness of the tons and tons of nuclear material at Tuwaitha," says Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN-chartered nuclear watchdog in Vienna.Skip to next paragraph
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The US military permitted an IAEA survey team to make an accounting of Iraq's previously declared nuclear material in May, in keeping with the IAEA's mandate. But the US severely restricted IAEA movements in Iraq, and "did not take us up on our offer" to examine local contamination, or security of radioactive sources, Ms. Fleming says.
Though such sources - found in X-ray machines and other specialized equipment - are normally the responsibility of governments, the IAEA's weapons inspection experience in Iraq meant that before the war it had a complete inventory of more than 1,000 sources.
Some 400 of those sources were at Tuwaitha, but the IAEA says it now has "no sense and no way of knowing," about the fate of those sources," adds Fleming, noting that the IAEA gave the US a listing. "All we can say is we hope steps were taken to control them."
A team of activists from the antinuclear group Greenpeace is at work in some of the neighborhoods most affected by looting at Tuwaitha, though it says it has found little definitive evidence of radiation sickness. Still, Greenpeace says it has found several radioactive sources in houses, including one irradiating at 10,000 times normal levels.
"If this happened in Europe or anywhere in the West, they would have shut down whole villages, closed streets, tested people and the environment for contamination, and done a big clean-up," says Rianne Teule, a Dutch radiation specialist with Greenpeace. "We've seen parts of the reactor building lying in fields more than six miles away."
In an effort to bring back some of the 500 or so yellowcake barrels that disappeared, the US military began a "buy back" program, which paid Iraqis $3 for each barrel handed over. But activists from Greenpeace found that the market price to replace such a barrel is $15, and so estimated that 150 barrels remained in circulation, held by people unwilling to part with their "new" water cistern.
On June 28, Greenpeace began exchanging 100 clean barrels. The first day they collected 12 barrels that were contaminated with traces of yellowcake.
The team has found pieces of metal in houses that they say "look like nothing," but are emitting radiation locally at potentially dangerous levels.
While concern over health problems is widespread, there are few concrete cases that can be found. And few people are open about their looting.
Dr. Jaafar Nasir Suhayb, for example, at the Al Medaan Hospital, suspects several cases could have been related to radiation sickness. Intifat Ressam, 13, has been experiencing severe nosebleeds, often several a day, and shortness of breath since she washed the clothes of her brother, who was caked in yellow powder from Tuwaitha. For days she did the wash in a container from Tuwaitha, since gotten rid of.
Ms. Ressam's is a case study of how difficult it will be for the health ministry to separate normal health problems among a desperately poor population, from those linked to radiation. While her condition has improved, she said that before the war, she had shortness of breath - and even a nosebleed a day.